LINCOLN — As Nate Schimonitz looked at the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd Monday afternoon in Snyder Arena — hundreds there to celebrate Nebraska Wesleyan’s Division III men’s basketball national championship — he had a few stray thoughts about how the incredible run almost never happened.
Every championship team has some close calls, like Wesleyan’s 18-point rally in the conference championship game, Schimonitz’s winning shot with three seconds to go in the round of 16, and a five-point rally in the final 1:13 in the national semifinal. But arguably the Prairie Wolves’ biggest win came in November.
With 1.7 seconds to go in an exhibition game Nov. 13, Schimonitz, the team’s leading scorer, felt a twinge in a knee. Surgery was definite, but recovery time wasn’t.
“I was looking at six weeks or six months,” Schimonitz said.
Worse yet, Schimonitz went into surgery unaware which procedure would be used because the surgeon couldn’t determine the extent of the damage without opening up the joint.
“It was a lot of stress. It was a week from my injury until the surgery, and that week was a big unknown,” he said.
Teammates were just as concerned.
“We were all worried for him. He’s definitely a key piece,” senior Deion Wells-Ross said.
Still in a post-anesthesia fog, Schimonitz received the good news.
“I knew this year would be big; we had a chance to do something special. We don’t have much time together, and to take a whole year off …” he said, shaking his head. “They still would have been a good team, but it would have been way worse for me.”
Schimonitz returned Dec. 30 as a reserve after missing 10 games. Nate Bahe, a sophomore, stepped into the starting lineup, and eventually became the team’s sixth man. Wells-Ross and Division III national coach of the year Dale Wellman each said the injury allowed other players to produce, and made team bonds stronger.
“Although I would never wish that on any player, looking back, in hindsight, it helped us,” Wellman said. “I didn’t know which direction it would go, but obviously it worked out for the best.”
Wellman, Wells-Ross, and Cooper Cook addressed the crowd of about 600 that was further entertained with confetti, gold and brown balloons, highlights from the tournament, and the chance to purchase national championship T-shirts.
Each player received a silver wristwatch from the NCAA, each bearing “2018 national champions” on the face. It was a happy coincidence that during the tournament run, junior reserve Ty Bardsley began tapping his left wrist with two fingers after a big play.
“He’d say, ‘It’s game time,’ or, ‘It’s our time,’ ” Wells-Ross said.
Soon thereafter, each 3-pointer, each dunk and each win brought about the same response. Wells-Ross did the wrist tap, perhaps for the last time, as he walked into the arena carrying the championship trophy.
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A look at some of the team’s top players
Deion Wells-Ross, Sr., Omaha: The team’s lone senior led the Iowa Conference in rebounding at 8.9 per game. He added 12.5 points per game, including a gasp-inducing dunk to cap the semifinal win against Springfield. He had 21 points and 15 rebounds in a sectional win against No. 1 Whitman and was universally viewed as the team’s vocal leader.
Cooper Cook, Jr., Overland Park, Kansas: The most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament averaged 16.8 points per game this season and 18.7 in the tournament. He scored 62 points in Wesleyan’s final three games and had seven 3-pointers against Springfield. He’s also the school’s career leader in blocked shots.
Ryan Garver, Jr., Lincoln: The Iowa Conference player of the year tied the game against Springfield with 34 seconds left on a three-point play. He averaged 14.2 points, had 76 steals — two short of the school record — and was honorable-mention All-America.
Jack Hiller, So., Olathe, Kansas: Hiller, who averaged 13.5 points, made two go-ahead baskets in Wesleyan’s last two games — in overtime of the semifinal win against Springfield, and with 2:17 remaining in the championship game against Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He also forced a turnover in the final seconds of a 79-78 sectional win against Wisconsin-Platteville.
Nate Schimonitz, So., Omaha: Schimonitz led the Prairie Wolves with 17.0 points per game and hit the winning shot with three seconds left against Wisconsin-Platteville. He scored 15 of his 31 points in the final 11 minutes as Wesleyan rallied from an 18-point deficit in the Iowa Conference tournament championship game against Central College.
Nate Bahe, So., Wood River: Bahe averaged 9.3 points and scored 10 in the NCAA tournament win against Aurora. Bahe started the first 12 games of the season while Schimonitz recovered from injury.
Austin Hall, So., Omaha: Hall emerged in the NCAA tournament. After averaging two points per game during the season, Hall put up a season-high 10 points and three assists in the win against No. 1 Whitman and added seven points in the championship game.
Team: The Prairie Wolves set a school record with 30 wins, made a Division III record 73 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament and became Wesleyan’s second national champion in a team sport (2006 men’s golf). This is also the first time a team from the Iowa Conference won a men’s basketball championship.